If the full extent of Gov. Jerry Brown's frustration with the California Environmental Quality Act was not already clear, it became so last week, when he said, "I've never seen a CEQA exemption that I don't like."
The remark, Brown's plainest yet about the state's landmark environmental protection, reflects his emerging record. Less than two years into office, Brown has signed three bills limiting the ability to challenge projects under the act, and he is openly supportive of at least one more.
Meanwhile, Brown's top political adviser, Steve Glazer, is quietly advising a group of business leaders on other ways to modify the law.
Environmentalists are dismayed: This is the Democratic governor and champion of environmental causes whose election they once cheered.
"We've got a Democratic governor who ran on a platform of being an environmentalist coming in and undermining fundamental environmental laws," said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. "In the past we've had to worry more about Republicans than we have about Democrats, and now we have to worry about the Democratic governor who ran on a pro-environment platform."
Environmentalists praised Brown when, soon after taking office, he signed legislation requiring California utilities to obtain one-third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. He set a goal of creating 20,000 new megawatts of renewable energy by that year.
The relationship quickly soured. Last fall, Brown signed legislation relaxing environmental regulations for certain infill projects and accelerating judicial review of environmental challenges to a proposed football stadium in Los Angeles. A third, broader bill, Assembly Bill 900, extended exemptions to major developments certified by the governor as "environmental leadership" projects.
At a bill-signing event in downtown Los Angeles, Brown said it is time for "big ideas and big projects," especially ones to "get people working."
Earlier this year, Brown approved the state's first "leadership" project, a new Apple Inc. campus in Cupertino, while proposing new legislation to insulate California's $68 billion high-speed rail from challenges brought under the environmental law.
He abandoned the high-speed rail measure, which would have limited circumstances in which a court could halt construction of the project, after environmentalists protested. But Brown suggested he was only delaying the effort until sometime after the Legislature approved initial funding for the project, which it did last month.
Brown saw Oakland obstacles
Brown's interest in an exemption for high-speed rail highlights one of his chief complaints about CEQA that an environmental regulation can be used to block projects he believes are beneficial for the environment.
"I think the governor very deeply believes that climate change is real and the most profound issue of our time," Ken Alex, a senior adviser to Brown, told environmental lawyers and academics at a CEQA conference in November.
Asked if Brown might seek to exempt projects from other requirements of CEQA if their contribution to reducing global warming is significant enough, Alex said he "wouldn't foreclose that idea."
Brown has not always been so critical of CEQA. He promoted environmental protections when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, and as state attorney general he used the law to pressure cities and counties to consider climate change in their long-range development plans.
But as mayor of Oakland, Brown experienced firsthand how restrictive the law could be. In 2001, he lobbied successfully for legislation to relax standards for infill housing projects in the city core.
The Planning and Conservation League's David Mogavero said Brown in Oakland "saw how CEQA could be an impediment to good infill development. That's what's coloring his thinking these days a lot."
Mogavero's group has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Assembly Bill 900. Like many environmentalists, Mogavero said some procedural changes to CEQA may be warranted, but not at the risk of environmental degradation.
Recent efforts to change the state's environmental legislation, including a package of proposals abandoned during unsuccessful state budget talks last year, have largely been at the law's margins. Environmentalists remain influential with legislative Democrats, the majority party.
"There's an element of what I would say is religious fervor around CEQA," Alex said at the conference last year. "On one hand, it's blamed for the fall of Western civilization, the unemployment rate and the rise of terrorism in the world. On the other hand, it's anointed as the only thing keeping us from Armageddon, or at least looking like New Jersey."
Brown's pronouncement of his appetite for CEQA exemptions came during a news conference at which he discussed his controversial plan to build a pair of tunnels to move water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the south. Brown said the administration is not seeking an environmental exemption for the project, but his broader statement resonated.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said he was "trying mightily not to be offended."
"The way he was so dismissive of environmentalists dismissive of CEQA," Huffman said. "That just wasn't the thoughtful problem-solver that I normally see in Jerry Brown."
Former governors urge updates
Critics of CEQA have tried to weaken the law almost since its passage four decades ago, largely unsuccessfully. But Brown has been accommodating of business interests since taking office, and Huffman fears the weak economy may afford opponents an opportunity they have not had previously.
"You're having the discussion at the nadir of a really lousy economy, so for those who want to pit jobs against the environment, this is a window of opportunity unlike anything they've seen in the last 30 years," he said. "They're going for it."
This month, former Govs. George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis wrote in a letter in the U-T San Diego that CEQA "is in need of modernization."
"While CEQA's original intent must remain intact, now is the time to end reckless abuses of this important law; abuses that are threatening California's economic vitality, costing jobs, and are wasting valuable taxpayer dollars," they wrote. "There has been a lot of talk about the need to confront CEQA litigation abuse, but unfortunately it's been mostly talk. We must tackle this important issue now."
Glazer promoted the letter on Twitter.
Late last year, a group of business interests hired him to begin advising them on potential changes they could propose to the environmental law. The group includes the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, retailers and other business and labor interests.
Glazer said in an e-mail that "in order to preserve CEQA for the long term we need to eliminate opportunities for abuse."
Expectations for immediate action are not high. The group is still "trying to get people interested in forming some sort of broader coalition," the Silicon Valley group's Shiloh Ballard said.
Ballard said Glazer's role is to be a "long-term strategic thinker on this stuff," and that his advice is separate from his relationship with Brown.
Though it "would be wonderful if he could just bring the governor along," Ballard said, "I'm told the governor's his own man."